An Imperialist Peace?

Alex Callinicos (1988)


Published in Socialist Worker Review issue 112, September 1988, pp15-20.

Transcribed by Jørn Andersen for Marxisme Online, 4 december 2001.



On 18 July the Iranian government announced its unconditional acceptance of United Nations Security Council Resolution 598. This amounted to a decision by the Islamic Republican regime in Tehran to sue for peace. Alex Callinicos looks at the background to and the consequences of this decision.


Most socialists – and certainly the bulk of the Iranian left – are likely to welcome the prospect of an end to the bloody conflict between Iran and Iraq, which developed after its outbreak in September 1980 into one of the major wars of the twentieth century, claiming perhaps as many as a million lives. This reaction is, however, profoundly mistaken. Iran's defeat in the Gulf War is a major victory for US imperialism.

Socialists will be glad to see an end to the war in the first place for humanitarian reasons. It has been a particularly horrible conflict. Isn't it natural for the left to welcome the end of slaughter of hundreds of thousands of workers and peasants?

Such a response rests upon a confusion between Marxism and pacifism. Revolutionary socialists are in no sense unconditional defenders of peace. It is true that we wish to put an end to the capitalist system which breeds wars, but this end can only be achieved by violent means.

Lenin summed up the Marxist approach, quoting the great Prussian military thinker Karl von Clausewitz:

"With reference to wars, the main thesis of dialectics ... is that 'war is simply the continuation of politics by other [ie violent] means'. Such is the formula of Clausewitz, one of the greatest writers on the history of war, whose thinking was stimulated by Hegel. And it was always the standpoint of Marx and Engels, who regarded any war as the continuation of the politics of the powers concerned – and the various classes within these countries – in a definite period."

Thus Marx and Engels not only advocated in 1848 a revolutionary war between a unified Germany and Tsarist Russia, but were staunch supporters of the North against the South in the bloodiest conflict in the Western world between 1815 and 1914, the American Civil War. Their stance in these and other cases rested upon a judgement about the outcome which would favour the interests of the international working class, not a pacifist rejection of war.

Lenin applied exactly the same method in the First World War, arguing that it was an imperialist war and that therefore the world working class had no interest in the victory of either side. The conclusion he drew was not, however, pacifist opposition to war, but rather that socialists should seek to turn the imperialist war into civil war, to use the turmoil and discontent caused by the slaughter as a revolutionary opportunity.

Revolutionary defeatism – revolutionaries' welcoming the defeat of their "own" government – flowed from this approach: "A revolution in wartime means civil war; the conversion of a war between governments into a civil war is, on the one hand, facilitated by military reverses (`defeats') of governments; on the other hand, one cannot actually strive for such a conversion without facilitating defeat."

The Marxist approach to war – even a reactionary imperialist war – is thus far from a passive refusal to take sides. Revolutionary socialists actively intervene even in wars which they oppose in order to promote the interests of the international working class.


How then does this general method apply to the Gulf War? Many socialists would no doubt argue that the correct stance in this instance is a revolutionary defeatist one, on the grounds that the Gulf War is a conflict between two local "sub-imperialisms", each aspiring to regional dominance and quite happy to pay a bloody price in its subjects' lives to achieve that end.

On this argument, the conflict in the Gulf is a mini-version of the First World War, and socialists should therefore seek to turn it into a civil war, on each side welcoming the defeat of their "own" government.

Sometimes this argument is backed up by a more general analysis of the world economy. The idea is that the emergence of centres of capital accumulation in the Third World – most obviously the Newly Industrialising Countries (NICs) of the Pacific Rim and Latin America, but also states such as Iran – has disrupted the old imperialist hierarchy of dominant and subordinate powers.

A country like Iran, which has experienced in the last generation the typical process of capitalist development – proletarianisation, urbanisation, industrialisation – is in no sense oppressed by Western imperialism. Any conflicts between the local ruling class and other powers – including the advanced capitalist countries – should be treated as a case of inter-imperialist competition, in which the world working class has no interest in the victory of either side.

This analysis isn't wholly false. The rise of the NICs does represent a shift in the global pattern of capitalist accumulation (although one whose significance it is easy to exaggerate – the less developed countries had a slightly smaller share of world industrial production in 1984 than they had in 1948). And certainly the ruling classes of these countries are no mere compradors of imperialism nor their governments puppets of Washington.

Nevertheless it is pure fantasy to suppose that the industrialisation of parts of the Third World represents the end of imperialism.

The bulk of the world's industrial production and military power is concentrated in North America, Western Europe, Japan, and the USSR. This fundamental reality is reflected in a hierarchy of power among the world's states. Politico-military relations indeed exaggerate this hierarchy. The United States continues to occupy the largely unchallenged position of diplomatic and strategic leadership over the EEC and Japan despite its relative economic decline.

The weight of Western imperialism continues to make itself felt throughout the world. The concept of sub-imperialism refers to the emergence in parts of the Third World of states aspiring to local political and military dominance. Usually these aspirations correspond to a developing industrial base (though not universally – Vietnam is the major power in Indo-China despite it being an economic basket case).

The territorial expansionism of these powers therefore involves the same kind of dynamic as that involved in classical imperialism, analysed above all by Bukharin – capital accumulation and economic competition find expression in military rivalries. The tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean are a good example.


No state can, however, hope to establish itself as a regional power without coming to some understanding with the imperialist powers – usually the US. The term "sub-imperialism " indeed originated in the 1970s when, in line with the Nixon Doctrine, the US sought to retreat from direct military intervention in the Third World by promoting certain friendly regimes to the status of regional powers – the Shah of Iran in the Gulf, the Brazilian military in Latin America, the apartheid regime in southern Africa.

Even the strongest of the third world states operate in a military and diplomatic context defined by imperialist powers. They can sometimes gain more room for manoeuvre by playing the superpowers against each other, as India has very successfully, but the relations between states remain profoundly unequal.

This analysis is of vital importance in understanding the situation in the Gulf. Iran's relatively weak position in the world system, despite the capitalist development under the Shah, helps to account for the anti-imperialist consciousness among the masses which the mullahs have been able to so successfully exploit. At the same time, the fact that we still live in an imperialist system dominated by a handful of advanced countries explains why the Western powers had both the capacity and the interest in intervening in the Gulf war.

The United States in particular has a very strong interest in Iran's defeat. The Iranian Revolution of 1978-9 was one of the most important in a series of major defeats suffered by US imperialism in the 1960s and 1970s. The worst was, of course, the Vietnam war, whose political consequences helped to create what has come to be known as the "Vietnam syndrome" preventing Washington from committing ground troops to prop up pro-Western regimes as it had quite freely done in the 1950s and 1960s.

The Iranian Revolution, coming as it did barely three years after the expulsion of the US and its clients from Indo-China, was another serious reversal. The Tehran insurrection of February 1979 destroyed the regime which had assumed the role of Western gendarme in the Gulf after Britain's final withdrawal from east of Suez in 1971. There followed severe humiliations from Washington – the seizure of the American embassy in Tehran by Islamic students in November 1979 and the subsequent failure of a US attempt to rescue its captured diplomats in April 1980.

The Iranian Revolution was also a crucial episode in the process through which the American ruling class have sought to break out of the Vietnam syndrome. In January 1980 President Jimmy Carter announced his doctrine, which stated the intention of the US to go to war if its vital interests in the Gulf were threatened.

Carter also established the Rapid Deployment Force, intended specifically for use in the Gulf, as part of the more general military build up he initiated. Reagan's programme of reasserting the American state's right and ability to use its armed strength around the world was a continuation of the policies of his Democratic predecessor.


The outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war on 22 September 1980 must be seen against this background. The Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein undoubtedly saw the invasion of an Iran thrown into disarray by the revolution as an opportunity to establish himself as the regional strongman. There were, however, wider forces involved. Saddam acted with the support of the Gulf sheikdoms, who were terrified of the impact of the revolution on their own subjects: in November 1979 Islamic Fundamentalists had seized the Grand Mosque in Mecca, and the Iraqi invasion of Iran followed closely on Saddam's first state visit to Saudi Arabia.

The invasion plan was drawn up with the help of Iranian royalist officers and was intended to restore to power Bakhtiar, the Shah's last prime minister. The invasion also had the tacit support of the US. In April 1980 Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter's National Security Assistant, declared: "We see no fundamental incompatibility of interests between the United States and Iraq." A quick Iraqi victory would roll back the Iranian Revolution, an outcome devoutly wished for by the US and its allies in the Gulf.

In the event, of course, there was no quick Iraqi victory. Saddam and his backers had gravely underestimated the ability of the Islamic Fundamentalist regime to compensate for its inferiority in military equipment and skilled personnel (nearly 17,000 officers had been purged by the mullahs by 1986) by mobilising the Iranian masses on the basis of a mixture of patriotism, compulsion, religious fervour – and fear of royalist restoration.

By June 1982 the Iraqis had been driven out of Iran. The war then settled down into a long drawn out war of attrition, a situation with which Washington was reasonably content, since it kept two potentially troublesome regimes occupied. The same calculations lay behind the Israeli policy of supplying arms to Iran.

The situation changed once it became clear that Iran might actually win the war. In February 1986 Tehran's troops seized the strategic Fao peninsular. If Iran won, Robert McFarlane, then Reagan's National Security Assistant, later commented, "the global equilibrium would be fundamentally tilted against Western interests." (Los Angeles Times, reprinted in the Guardian, 29 July 1988) McFarlane was involved in Washington's initial response to Iranian military successes which was to offer arms in exchange for improved relations with Tehran.

Contragate was a completely bungled attempt to pursue what was a perfectly rational strategy, namely to court that section of the Islamic regime willing to pursue closer relations with the West, a group represented above all by Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Speaker of the Majlis (parliament). However, confiding the direction of this initiative to the group of right wing fanatics dominated by Colonel Oliver North who were already running Reagan's Central American policy guaranteed its failure.

In the wake of the exposure of the Contragate scandal in November 1986, the Reagan administration quickly changed tack, reflagging Kuwaiti ships to place them under American naval protection in July 1987 and subsequently building up in the Gulf the biggest US fleet since Vietnam. Various factors were behind this change.


One was Contragate itself. The affair gravely undermined the Gulf states's confidence in the US – Washington had been caught supplying arms to their mortal enemy in Tehran. US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy admitted to Congress in May 1987 that "it was not coincidental" that Kuwait approached the USSR for naval protection the same month that the Contragate scandal broke. Decisive intervention against Iran was the best way of rebuilding US standing in the Middle East.

There were, however, more long term reasons. One was the spectre of an Iranian victory. "While we want no victor, we can't stand to see Iraq defeated," US Assistant Defence Secretary Richard Armitage told Congress in June, "that spectre would lead to instability from Marrakesh to Bangladesh." The relevance of such fears was underlined by Iran's growing influence in the great Shi'ite slums of southern Beirut.

Moreover, a significant section of the American ruling class saw the Gulf War as an opportunity to undermine the Vietnam syndrome. The consequences of Reagan's previous attempts to re-establish the right of American imperialism to intervene militarily around the globe had either been disastrous (the dispatch of US Marines to Beirut in 1983), irrelevent (the invasion of Grenada that same year), or equivocal (the bombing of Tripoli in April 1986).

US intervention to secure the defeat of a regime which symbolised America's humiliations in the 1960s and 1970s would be a major breakthrough.

The policy was a high risk one and had its opponents within the administration. But it also had its supporters outside – Brzezinski was one of the most vocal advocates of a tilt towards Iraq. And other Western governments fell into line behind Washington, with characteristic variations – France proved less than enthusiastic, while Margaret Thatcher backed Reagan to the hilt (these responses mirrored exactly General De Gaulle's opposition and Harold Wilson's support for US policy in Vietnam). But above all the American gamble worked – US intervention brought about Iran's defeat.


Many socialists would deny that last claim, arguing that since the American naval build up in the summer of 1987 there have been two conflicts in the Gulf, the land war between Iran and Iraq and the intermittent sea fighting between the US and Iran. The two wars were, so the argument goes, quite separate. Socialists should adopt a defeatist position in the land war, but support Iran against the US itself (though many Iranian socialists were not prepared to go that far, welcoming the Khomeini regime's defeat even by the American forces).

This argument is quite without factual basis. It ignores the way in which, by July 1987, the two conflicts had become so interwoven as to be inseparable, with the main strand the struggle by US imperialism to ensure an Iranian defeat. After Tehran had sued for peace, McFarlane identified two immediate causes – Iraq's military superiority and Iran's isolation in the Middle East: "But neither of these conditions ... would have developed without the intervention of the United States and other allies."

US intervention took various forms. The American naval build up altered the strategic balance of forces in the Gulf. Armed clashes between American and Iranian ships put out of action half of Iran's conventional naval forces at little cost to the US.

US attacks on Iranian shipping were carefully co-ordinated with Iraqi ground operations. Thus the American destruction of two Iranian oil rigs and subsequent disabling of two frigates in April 1988 followed closely on the Iraqi offensive which re-captured the Fao peninsula.

The American naval presence not only helped Iraq in the war, but increased the economic pressures on Tehran. Iraq had initiated the tanker war in 1984 partly to internationalise the war by provoking Western intervention but also to hamper the export of Iranian oil. Iraq uses pipelines across Turkey and Saudi Arabia to export its oil, while Iran is mainly dependent on sea routes. McFarlane explained: "As this [ie Iraqi] air power was applied to the interdiction of oil production, refining and shipping – Iran's main source of hard currency – Iran lost the ability to import weapons for the war and food for its population."

The US helped Iraq win this vital sea war. In McFarlane's words: "Our naval presence ... would ensure that Iraq received the supplies it needed to dominate the war." At the same time Washington was busy on other fronts. American officials drummed up international support for an arms embargo of Iran.

Thus in March 1988 the US announced a high technology transfer agreement with China following Beijing's decision to stop supplying arms to Tehran. Meanwhile Washington came to the economic aid of Saddam Hussein, for example, guaranteeing some Iraqi loans and providing food aid.

US intervention was also essential to creating a united Arab front behind Iraq. The turning point in this process came at the Arab League meeting of November 1987, which took the historic step of re-opening diplomatic relations with Egypt. Egypt, an outcast since signing the Camp David agreement with Israel in 1978, is one of Washington's key allies in the Middle East, second only to Israel as a recipient of US military aid.

This major diplomatic victory for the US was made possible by the anti-Iranian alliance it had forged. Even Tehran's sole Arab ally, Syria, was bribed into distancing itself. Thirty thousand Egyptian troops were deployed in Iraq, a move inconceivable without Washington's approval.


By July 1988 the Khomeini regime was reeling under the impact of this offensive. Militarily it had been driven onto the defensive – forced from Iraqi soil, enemy forces in the north of the country, its cities subject to daily bombardment. Its armed forces were in a chaotic state, divided between the savagely purged regular army and the Pasdaran, or Islamic Revolutionary Guards.

The economy was in a desperate condition, oil revenues slashed by a slack market and the sea war, shortages and black-marketeering rife, inflation running at an annual rate of 50 percent, over a fifth of the workforce unemployed, agriculture declining, trade debts of $5 billion greater than the country's foreign reserves.

The shooting down of the Iranian Airbus by USS Vincennes on 3 July may have been the last straw. Whether intentional or the result as the Pentagon now claims of "human error" the slaughter by the US Navy of 290 civilians took place as part of a broader military operation, initiated according to the Sunday Times (10 July, 1988) by American helicopters, which flew into Tehran's airspace provoking an Iranian response. The indifference with which the Reagan administration greeted a greater air disaster than the destruction of KAL 007 by Russian fighters in 1983 demonstrated America's ruthlessness. Iran's rulers feared that, in Rafsanjani's words, "America might commit huge crimes if Iran continued the war."

Iran's parlous state strengthened the hands of the faction within the Khomeini regime who wanted to improve relations with the West. Its leader was Rafsanjani, whose position had been Commander-in-Chief. Rafsanjani's policy could be summed up in the words of the Financial Times as "a tacit abandonment of Iran's goal of global Islamic revolution – which was always supposed to begin with the establishment of an Islamic regime in one country". (19 July 1988)

McFarlane described the Khomeini regime's acceptance of more restricted goals as "historic", an unprecedented "example in which a first generation revolutionary has broken faith with the revolution that he has inspired". He welcomed this victory, the result of "credible US commitment", for what it might presage for the future: "We ought to remember how we did it, for we may have to do it again."


For some socialists, however, the main significance of Iran's defeat does not lie in the success this represented for the US, but in the possibilities of social revolution which it opened up. Thus the Militant reacted with the speculation that "just as the First World War ended in a storm of revolutions in Europe, so the end of the Gulf War could usher in big upheavals in Iran, Iraq and the other Gulf states." (29 July 1988)

This and other prognoses involve applying the logic of revolutionary defeatism to the Gulf War in abstraction from the concrete circumstances of that conflict, and thus in defiance of Lenin's injunction "to study each war historically (from the standpoint of Marx's dialectical materialism) and separately." This kind of mechanical reasoning is politically worthless.

The First World War ended in a revolutionary wave, concentrated especially in the defeated powers (Russia, Germany, Austria, Hungary). The Gulf War broke out after the Iranian revolution had been defeated with the establishment of the Islamic republican regime. The mullahs had entrenched themselves within a year of the February 1979 insurrection. The war permitted them to consolidate their power further.

To expect that, in these circumstances, Iran's defeat after nearly eight exhausting years of war will favour the left is wishful thinking. The war weariness that undoubtedly built up and which manifested itself in strikes and demonstrations is likely to be politically ambiguous, with many of those involved rejecting the revolution itself along with the regime which seized its mantle and looking back to the days of the Shah and of friendly relations with the West.

Iran's defeat will, in all probability, usher in a domestic political crisis. In effect, it will hasten the succession crisis which would have occurred in any case following Khomeini's death. The regime is divided on questions of economic policy, between supporters of a greater degree of state capitalism, who are backed by Khomeini and Rafsanjani and who won the Majlis elections in April, and the defenders of private enterprise, who have the support of President Khamanei and of the clerical Council of Guardians.

But the political divisions within the regime are now likely to intensify in a context more favourable to those who favour closer relations with the West, integration into the world market, and perhaps even the restoration of the monarchy.

The inability of the Iranian left to respond to this situation is not simply a consequence of the savage repression socialists have suffered at the hands of the clerical regime, but also of their politics. The bulk of the left swung from a position which amounted to tailing the mullahs during the revolution to welcoming their defeat at the hands of the US and its allies.

Having been disappointed in its search for the "progressive" bourgeoisie required by the Stalinist Popular Front politics in clerical garb, the Iranian left fell into the ultimate class alliance, effectively backing American imperialism as the instrument for achieving the "historically necessary stage" of bourgeois democracy in Iran!


Representing the most extreme case of this approach was the Mojaheddin, whose Iraqi-based National Liberation Army temporarily invaded Iranian Kurdistan at the end of the war. The Mojaheddin had developed a guerrilla campaign against the Shah's rule on the basis of an attempted synthesis of Islam and "Marxism" – ie the Stalinised nationalism so common among the Third World left.

During the revolution they first gave critical support to the mullahs, calling Khomeini "a great revolutionary" and "Father of the Revolution", voting for the establishment of an Islamic republic, and sending their militia to the front when war broke out. The Mojaheddin subsequently attached themselves to the liberal bourgeois faction of the regime led by President Bani-Sadr. When Bani-Sadr was driven from power in June 1981 they launched a guerilla campaign which gave the mullahs the pretext to smash the left, executing perhaps as many as 20,000 in 1981-3.

The Mojaheddin then found a new ally in the shape of Saddam Hussein. Its leader, Masud Rajavi, signed a peace treaty with Iraq in 1985 and moved to Baghdad at the end of last year. Meanwhile the Mojaheddin sought more powerful allies.

According to the Los Angeles Times of 30 November 1987 Mojaheddin representatives held a meeting with US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Murphy. Fifty three US Congressmen and Senators called on Congress to give them financial support. This is one case where the old Maoist phrase "running dogs of US imperialism" fits all too well.

The degeneration of the Mojaheddin into an Iranian version of the Contras dramatises the disastrous political influence of Stalinism on the left in the Middle East. Even the Iranian supporters of the Fourth International do not seem to have understood one of the main axioms of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, namely that no section of the bourgeoisie can consistently fight imperialism.

This does not rule out clashes between a Third World state and imperialism, such as those involving Iran and the US at the beginning and end of the Gulf War. But a bourgeois regime, however verbally anti-imperialist, is incapable of waging a consistent struggle against imperialism, ultimately because of the class interests which bind it to its opponents.


For revolutionaries the correct stance is not therefore to abstain in a conflict between a bourgeois nationalist regime such as Khomeini's and imperialism, as the Iranian left has, switching from tailing the mullahs to tailing the US State Department. It is rather, to adopt the stance of military support for, but political opposition to, the regime in question.

Thus Trotsky argued that revolutionaries should support the bourgeois nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek when Japanese imperialism invaded China in 1937, even though Chiang had crushed the revolution of 1925-7:

"But can Chiang Kai-shek assure the victory? I do not believe so. It is he, however, who began the war and who today directs it. To be able to replace him it is necessary to gain decisive influence among the proletariat and in the army, and to do this it is necessary not to remain suspended in the air but to place oneself in the midst of the struggle. We must win influence and prestige in the military struggle against foreign invasion and in the political struggle against the weaknesses, the deficiencies, and the internal betrayal. At a certain point, which we cannot fix in advance, this political opposition can and must be transformed into armed conflict, since the civil war, like war generally, is nothing but the continuation of the political struggle."

What would this strategy, according to which "in the national war against foreign imperialism, the working class, while remaining in the front lines of the military struggle, prepare[s] the political overthrow of the bourgeoisie," have meant in the Gulf War?

It would have meant revolutionaries demanding that the mullahs wage a revolutionary war against the US and its allies, that, as I wrote at the beginning of the war, they "make Tehran the beacon of genuine revolution throughout the region – granting the right of self-determination to the Kurds, Arabs and other national minorities, establishing organs of popular power, fighting for the liberation of women from the Islamic yoke". (Socialist Worker, 4 October 1980)

Had Iranian revolutionaries adopted this approach, they would have established themselves as the consistent fighters against imperialism, and could now denounce the Khomeini regime for having capitulated to Washington. Instead, they effectively ceded the leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle to the mullahs, with the result that the pro-Western right is likely to be the chief beneficiary of Iran's defeat.

For that is the overwhelming reality of Iran's surrender – a victory for American imperialism. The Wall Street Journal gloated (22 July 1988):

"This turn of events is a major foreign policy victory for the US. The dispatch one year ago of an armada of US naval ships – later joined by those of several Western European nations – to protect Kuwaiti tankers from Iranian attack marked a psychological shift in the war. Frightened Arab states such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait felt secure enough to stand up forcefully to Iran."

For the first time since Vietnam the United States has been able to use its military might to defeat a major threat to Western interests. That is why the mullahs' defeat is also a defeat for the world working class. *


* Material produced by the Socialist Workers Party's American and German sister organisations, the International Socialist Organisation and the Sozialistische Arbeiter Gruppe, were of great help in writing this article.



Last updated 4.12.01